kampot town – The dust has settled in the nearby village of Chamkar Bei, where former Khmer Rouge rebel Chhouk Rin, jailed since January, once led rebel defectors into developing a model rural community.
Villagers are beginning to accept their leader’s arrest—even though they believe he is innocent of murder and robbery charges in connection with a 1994 train ambush that resulted in the deaths of 13 Cambodians and three foreign backpackers.
What a few months ago was despair and chaos among villagers at the loss of their leader has become a more palpable fear that everything they have worked for soon could be taken away. In their minds, it’s a classic game of divide and conquer: Without Chhouk Rin to protect them, powerful authorities are stepping in to foster a general feeling of mistrust. Their aim: to take the villagers’ carefully cultivated land.
And what is even more galling, they say, is that the other suspect in the attack, RCAF General Sam Bith, has yet to be arrested despite government assurances that he, too, would be brought in for questioning on charges of kidnapping, murder and destruction of public property.
Sam Bith’s family, villagers say, has boasted that he might never answer for his alleged role in the killings. (Ex-guerrilla commander Nuon Paet was sentenced to life in prison last year for ordering the ambush.)
“Things are unraveling here. Fast,” said Linda McKinney, United Cambodian Community development foundation director. The organization is partly funded by USAID and runs one of Cambodia’s most successful Khmer Rouge re-integration projects.
Villagers say officials have turned up with Ministry of Agriculture concessions for private farming enterprises that were applied for in 1996, but never approved for use in Chamkar Bei, where roughly 1,700 people—many of them Khmer Rouge defectors—now live.
A top military official in the area, Miech Man, has been named in a handful of land-dispute cases in surrounding areas, according to independent legal groups. Chhouk Rin’s villagers are concerned he may now have set his sights on their land.
While Miech Man could not be reached for comment after several attempts in the past week, other regional officials denied claims of any wrongdoing.
“There are no land problems,” said Keo Chea, military police commander in Kep, which oversees Chamkar Bei. “This information was spread by outsiders.”
A consortium of NGOs earlier this month called a meeting to evaluate the land disputes in the Chamkar Bei area. They have yet to make any recommendations but are trying to stop any land appropriations there until the government’s land law is adopted, said one Western representative who asked not to be identified.
Villagers also claim that despite officials’ earlier efforts to disarm civilians and only allow police and military to carry guns, those who “should not have guns” remain armed. One villager, who would not reveal his name for fear of retribution, said he was recently threatened by another civilian whom the villager said had acquired a firearm. The two eventually settled the dispute, but the villager said he worries the incident has larger significance.
“They are trying to break up our friendships,” he said of authorities whom he claims could be selectively distributing weapons. “There’s no bloodshed at this point, but it could be that way. This has us very, very worried. Now comrades look at each other as enemies.”
But An He, first deputy governor of Kep, refuted these claims outright. He characterized relations in the village as “friendly.”
Khat Man, a former bodyguard for both Sam Bith and Chhouk Rin, said this could not be further from the truth. “Even I am afraid of the future,” said the hardened soldier. “My home, my land—all of it is in jeopardy.”
A number of villagers, interviewed separately, agreed. They also expressed enormous discontent over the government’s seeming inability to arrest Sam Bith, who was summoned for questioning months ago but has never appeared. Khat Man says he recently spoke to members of Sam Bith’s family, who claim that he is being protected by his high-ranking allies. His discontent stems from whether former Khmer Rouge soldiers joined the nation’s dominant political party.
“For the leaders of the CPP, if you joined with them, you no longer are Khmer Rouge. But if you didn’t, you still are Khmer Rouge, and who knows what will happen to you?”
McKinney echoed these concerns and said what’s happening in Chamkar Bei could be only the beginning. “It’s extremely important that the government’s promises are kept. When they’re not kept—like we’re seeing in Chamkar Bei—it brings up scary scenarios of what could happen in other Khmer Rouge areas.”
(Additional reporting by Thet Sambath)